‘Onerous’ new scheme ‘putting natural environment at risk’, DEFRA warned

Fewer farmers are taking up the latest mid-tier environmental scheme compared to numbers leaving the

Fewer farmers are taking up the latest mid-tier environmental scheme compared to numbers leaving the last one. - Credit: Archant

The Government has come under fire over the speed of payments to farmers signed up to agri-environmental agreements and been warned that the “onerous” nature of its latest schemes is putting off farmers, as numbers involved plummet.

Natural England says it is taking a “targeted” approach as it revealed that 2,314 applications were received for the first year of the UK’s new agri-environment Countryside Stewardship mid-tier scheme, a rebranded and restructured version of existing stewardship agreements that come to an end in 2016, which closed for applications on September 30. This compares with more than 11,000 agreements of a comparable level under the existing scheme. It is feared that the number of agreements offered will be lower than the number of applications due to the competitive computerised scoring process which will be used.

Landowners’ lobby group the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) warned of a risk to wildlife after fewer farmers and landowners entered the latest mid-tier scheme.

Natural England says it is now working to assess the applications in order to offer agreements to those who have submitted “high quality plans that will do most to improve our water quality and the farmed environment, including for our birds and bees”. The closing date for higher tier bids is October 31.

The CLA claims the onerous requirements and the way the scheme was introduced by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Natural England have discouraged landowners from participating.

CLA president Henry Robinson said: “Landowners and farmers want to protect and improve the environment, and we want the new Countryside Stewardship scheme to succeed. Up until this point around 70% of English agricultural land has been covered by an environmental stewardship agreement. However the chaos of the new scheme’s introduction and the complexity of its requirements have put land managers off participating next year.

“During the application window our members reported strong reservations about the continued delays in providing important information from DEFRA and Natural England, the overly burdensome reporting requirements and the inflexible way in which the scheme is being managed.

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“We have been warning the Government for months, but they failed to take the swift and decisive action that was required to salvage the scheme. England’s natural environment and wildlife will pay the price. This is a big step backwards in our efforts to improve the environmental management of our landscapes.”

He added that while the new Countryside Stewardship scheme was supposed to simplify Government input and deliver better results for the environment, environmental benefits built up through 10 years of investment into environmental schemes could be lost “very quickly” if the Government makes it too difficult for farmers to maintain their work.

“DEFRA must now enter into open discussion with land managers to ensure that next year’s scheme is much improved both in terms of being viable for applicants and also delivering the best environmental benefits,” he said.

Natural England said: “Compared to its predecessor, the scheme has been re-focused to ensure improved outcomes. By making it more competitive, targeted and demanding we will ensure that those applications which deliver the greatest environmental benefits are successful. We know that many prospective applicants are waiting for the scheme to get established in its first year before they apply next year – this is similar to the experience of the first year of Entry Level Stewardship. Farmers who have not applied this year can apply next year for a Countryside Stewardship agreement starting on January 1, 2017.”

Meanwhile, National Farmers’ Union vice president Guy Smith urged DEFRA to make agri-environment payments as soon as possible after it emerged that just under half of claimants will not be receiving payments next week.

“For 53% of claimants, it will be good to see at least some of the payment hit the account but these payments were expected two months ago. It’s certainly difficult to see the positives in this situation,” he said.

“It’s very frustrating that such a large proportion of claimants are not going to receive any payment as part of the agri-environment scheme next week. We are strongly urging DEFRA to resolve any issues that are holding payments speedily to enable quick payment. Many farmers face serious cash flow issues while they are owed £400million for work they have already done for this scheme.”

Natural England said: “In September, we made a commitment to start making advance payments for Environmental Stewardship agreements from October, with the majority by November and December. Both Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency understand the importance of agri-environment payments to the rural community and we are working together to get these out to our customers as early as possible.”